Selling Yarns


Follow us on Facebook

Its all art, but still we have a fibre problem

Selling Yarns 1: Australian Indigenous textiles and good business in the 21st century

August 2006

Copresented by Tim Acker and Jon Altman as part of the Selling Yarns conference held in Darwin 2006, the paper argues that Indigenous art and craft is all art, but that some forms have greater market demand and associated value, and that the community art centre model and public patronage remain essential to ensure the maintenance of robust arts practice at remote Indigenous communities.


Economic reality, contested value and Aboriginal art


Rejecting the global art market distinction between art and craft, in this paper we argue that Indigenous art and craft is all art, but that some forms have greater market demand and associated value. Low value art, especially fibre and textiles often produced by women, has cultural worth. But such art is difficult to sell owing to a combination of global competition and market perceptions. In this paper, we highlight regional diversity in art forms and in community-based art centre responses to what we term the 'fibre problem', the problem of selling particular forms of art, often made of fibre. Some case study evidence is provided of success in addressing this problem: adaptation of art forms, cross-subsidisation, innovative purchasing practices, and new marketing linkages. We argue that the community art centre model and public patronage remain essential to ensure the maintenance of robust arts practice at remote Indigenous communities. Maximizing economic and cultural livelihood options in situations where commercial opportunity is heavily circumscribed will also require a state recognition that arts support will need to be structured to provide appropriate incentives to producers irrespective of value.

From ethnographica to art, from art to craft?: Outlining the problem

The modern Aboriginal arts movement arguably started in the late 1960s as federal government policy sought opportunities for Aboriginal Australians to engage with the burgeoning Australian tourism industry (Altman 1988). A major change in the early 1970s saw Western Desert art from Papunya make a sudden transformation from 'ethnographic art' to 'fine art' (Bardon and Bardon 2004). It took over a decade though before this same art that was embraced by the global art market in the late 1980s when the Dreamings Exhibition (Sutton 1988) made a major impact in New York.

The categorising of Aboriginal creative products as art, not primitivist ethnographica is replicated in the tension between the classifications of 'art' and 'craft'. It might be useful at the outset to define and distinguish between these two terms. Art, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, is defined as 'the production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance'. Craft is 'an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skills, especially manual skill' and further, craft is also defined as 'handicraft', in itself a 'manual art or occupation'.

These definitions, extracted from the reductionist, scientific western worldview, are clearly not neatly definitionally contained or uncontested. And they are a little 'thin' as they do not address the important issue that the term art conjures up notions of the sacred and spiritual, while craft is associated with the utilitarian and profane. These two definitions, despite their limitations, also characterize Aboriginal creative practice. Irrespective of whether material manifestations are baskets, carvings or paintings, the works are generally 'of more than ordinary significance' and certainly require 'special skills' to create. Unfortunately, market forces are not so generous, and herein lies what we refer to as 'the fibre' problem.

It is important to recognise that this art versus craft distinction occurs with respect to art created by all people, not just Indigenous peoples, world-wide. However, the art versus ethnography dualism is generally limited to Indigenous peoples, resulting in the existence of two hurdles in the path of Aboriginal product: crossing the boundary from ethnographica to art; and simultaneously seeking to cross the categorical boundary from craft to art.

Why do Aboriginal paintings dominate the market and so many other creative products struggle in the art market? What does the market see in paintings that it does not recognise in craft and fibre work? Can anything be done to change these perceptions? Above all, how do these economic realities play out in the lives and communities of Aboriginal artists?

The crucial institutions that broker Aboriginal art are art centres. These remote area enterprises negotiate extraordinary cross-cultural terrain, working with artists in small, marginalised communities in Australia's north and centre. The geographic isolation and cultural distancing of the artists and art centres helps maintain the cultural integrity of both artist and art despite many artists' careers often playing out in global arenas. By effectively mediating between artists and the marketplace, the art centres promote the artwork that the market accords iconic and high value status (Altman 2005).

With few exceptions, the artists who attain international prominence are painters. At this rarefied level, the machinery of the global art market is breathtaking in its momentum. Witnessing Aboriginal artists and their artworks crossing these geographic, educational and race boundaries, presenting their distinct cultural creativity to the world, is an extraordinary intercultural process. However, only a few Aboriginal artists attain such prominence - the hierarchy of success for artists is both steep and triangular.

So why is it that craft and fibre works do not generate the same reception? A basket, whether produced in an Arnhem Land or desert community invariably fails to ignite the same market heat, yet nobody questions its cultural content or integrity. Nor is the cool response related to time or effort. The creativity and processing skills required to turn Spinifex grass into a basket, or pandanus into a dilly bag, is unquestionable. And yet in the same time, a painter could produce an acrylic or bark paintings with less physical exertion and stand to make significantly more money. For example, in 1979 - 80 using time allocation techniques, Altman (1987) found that males could earn 3 - 5 times more per hour than females. There is nothing to suggest that today this ratio has changed.

Women produce the great majority of fibre work and Aboriginal craft. While most communities and art centres have men who carve or work in mediums other than paintings, it is generally Aboriginal women who are sustaining existing fibre practice and developing new creative expression through fibre. This creativity can pollinate other areas of an artist's or community's practice; witness some of the female artists from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands who readily move from painting to baskets and fibre works, at times telling the same stories, or using the same motifs in the two mediums. In central Arnhem Land, some women now paint; many now produce painted wooden carvings that return far more per hour than fibre art; and some have adapted their fibre art to focus on producing fibre sculptures and fish traps. This diversity has not only seen Aboriginal agency in responding to the market, thus testing different market responses, but has also shown how adaptable producers are, how they are willing to adapt their clan and ceremonial designs and artistic and craft techniques to new market-oriented forms. This diversification has also meant that some 'craft' forms like baskets and dilly bags have become rarer, and suddenly they generate greater market appeal.

However, there is a very steep ladder of economic success that structures the painting market. Paintings at the elite level are effortless to sell; indeed, the waiting lists for profile artists are long and good paintings sell themselves.

Paintings, or rather artists as the art market is overwhelmingly 'name' driven, that are not in this elite level are rather harder to sell. These second tier works, often derided as 'tourist paintings' or 'witchetty grub paintings' or 'bakki [for tobacco] art', carry little momentum in the market place. Supply exceeds demand with these lower priced works, and all art centres struggle to sell these paintings - the reverse dynamics to that applying to elite level artists. The market, unconsciously perhaps, sees these lower value paintings as less 'art' and more 'craft'.

Yet this hierarchy of artistic, cultural and economic recognition is also critical to the development of emerging artists, creating an apprenticeship system that allows artists to grow their confidence and talents, acquiring skills and learning from older artists and cultural mentors. Of course, not all who take up painting or basketry or any creative pursuit will succeed. One of the art centres' most challenging negotiations is to distinguish between those artists to be nurtured through an arts development cycle and those artists who will never make it and to offer alternative arts opportunities. Most art centres have artists whose paintings may never capture the market's imagination, despite their quality or cultural power. Some give up, but some adapt and move paradoxically from being an unsuccessful painter into an excellent fish trap maker or carver or basket maker who are paid more for their craft than they ever were for their paintings.

The cultural integrity of such second tier work is not in question. Such paintings receive the same care in providing assuring provenance and documentation and the artists, though often younger and less experienced in both whitefella technical and blackfella cultural senses, have the same commitment to their work. Yet the market does not respond. The same market place judgements appear to apply to these second tier paintings as they do to craft, basketry and fibre work.

However, it seems that these commercial prejudices apply even more harshly to 'craft' than to 'art', as even a low value painting will generally sell for more than a polished piece of fibre work or a well-made basket. There are exceptions to this rule; when 'craft' is made by a 'name' artist/painter, or when a craftsperson makes an object that displays intangible qualities of uniqueness and creativity, then the resulting works can be marketed as 'art' and be sold for greater amounts. Aboriginal artists also need to adapt their artistic practice to seasonal requirements, which in turn means the artists' market profile shifts between 'craftsman/woman' and an 'artist'. In Arnhem Land, bark can only be harvested at certain times, so artists may move to producing sculptures and hollow logs while in the desert, grasses are only collected at certain times and artists may shift to paintings or producing fibre works from 'imported' materials, such as wire or raffia.

Craft and global competition

The universality of basket making and much other fibre work is perhaps the overriding force driving consumer perceptions. All Aboriginal cultures have a tradition of fibre work, basket making and other socio-cultural expressions whose contemporary versions are labelled 'craft'. With few borders in worldwide trade and many of these global Indigenous communities seeking both cultural identity and economic livelihoods in an era when many are marginalised, Aboriginal basket makers and fibre artists are competing internationally. There are no industry tariffs in their favour and significant perception issues to battle. Fibre works and baskets from Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa are all vying for market share in Australia. The economics of this are also against Aboriginal artists. The ability to make an income from baskets by a community in Papua New Guinea or the Philippines or Namibia, baskets then exported to Australia, is easier than for Aboriginal basket makers. Globalisation and trade liberalisation have ramifications even for Australia's remotest and poorest communities.

This situation is in fact more complex in Australia because of the paradox of the welfare state: people in Third World contexts have no other income earning options whereas in Fourth World contexts Indigenous peoples face poverty traps, that is, one can produce so much art before welfare starts declining or in economics jargon people face effective marginal tax rates that exceed 100%.

Aligned to, or perhaps feeding these perceptions of fibre work's universality is the utilitarian nature of most basketry. Because the resulting craftwork has a functional look or may be derived from a domestic product, the result is often devalued. This is seen most starkly when a fibre artist makes a sculptural object, rather than a functional object. This object fits the market perceptions of being less definable and therefore qualifying as 'fine art', rather than being classified as a 'bowl', 'basket' or 'bag'.

The market's 'fibre problem' is obvious when dealing with the intangibles of creativity and uniqueness. Paintings readily attract the market's endorsement, a trait built over several hundred years of imbuing paintings with otherworldliness, a spiritual depth communicated across dimensions and speaking of things beyond knowing. Aboriginal paintings' reception by global audiences is closely aligned to this; the abstractness of many works and the cultural differences all adding to the mysticism and allure. The biggest consumers of Aboriginal paintings are those cultures where the acculturation of painting is strongest. A second aspect of this thinking is the label of uniqueness. Paintings succeed because they are seen as one-off; the magic is limited to that one canvas and it is irreplaceable because of some artistic synthesis, an expression of the painter-meeting-the-divine.

Baskets and fibre work struggle to attract these same emotional reactions -they are seen as decorative and practical, not mythical and transcendental. Unless those baskets and fibre works are less 'basket' and more sculpture, less utilitarian and more celestial and then they are art. Or, unless a large part of the market's emotional response can be re-wired to ascribe the same qualities to baskets as it does to paintings.

Community-based art centres and public patronage

Arts production in remote Australia is invariably mediated by community-based art centres that are generally in receipt of some public patronage. The arts development and the commercial broking services offered by all competent art centres is the single most important ingredient in sustaining existing practice and encouraging new artists and new work. Without the infrastructure and professional development opportunities of art centres, much of the creative expression of remote Aboriginal artists, in all mediums, would not be marketed and there would be an associated loss of livelihood opportunity. In considering then how the 'fibre problem' might be addressed it is important to focus a little on these organisations because they will play the pivotal role, in collaboration with both artists and the market, in any search for solutions.

Art centres operate in communities of acute disadvantage. With few commercial opportunities and negligible employment, art centres are a rare and highly successful way of maximizing economic and cultural livelihood options.

The challenge put forward by art centres and Aboriginal artists is one of equity. Art centres respond to community and artist needs when they support basketry and fibre art - for there are few commercial reasons to do so. There is little profit and substantial resources in supporting 'craft' compared to paintings. If funding agencies direct their preferences to those activities that perform - that is, make money - then non-commercial activities wither. Short-sighted funding decisions that limit the capacity for art centres to support unprofitable activities can have far reaching social and cultural implications. Basket making, carving and similar art forms are meaningful motivators for people to be active and participate - and the social health problems created by 'inactivity' are a concern of current policy. It is arguable that it is better to subsidise the marketing of unpopular art forms than to see them disappear leaving people with no meaningful activity. Art production is valued in communities, gives people some purpose and sense of pride and supplements their low incomes.

In all societies culture and commerce are highly interdependent. Commerce, however, shares a fixed global denominator, money, while that which is cultural is highly variable and contestable and not reducible to a common currency. Art centres mediate this gulf between culture and commerce on a daily basis, but the dependence of virtually all art centres on funding regimes that recognise the commercial over the cultural, creates both a tension for the organisation and a disconnect with Aboriginal people. It is the indivisibility of the creativity and cultural continuity of Aboriginal Australians that is the fuel for the commercial successes of Aboriginal art. Without state support of art centres' non-commercial, creative and cultural activities, any commercial benefits shrink. The well-being of the Aboriginal art sector depends on equality of funding support that both reflects community reality and is structured to provide appropriate incentives to artists and producers irrespective of market value.

Emerging strategies: art centres and artists respond

The complexity of the contemporary Aboriginal arts industry is seeing a range of strategies being adopted by art centres and their artistic constituencies that seek to influence the market as well as adapt 'craft' in a manner than can attract the elite arts tag. Some art centres use a mix of the following and we merely set out to broadly identify what we observe from our work with a number of art centres throughout remote Australia.

Artists' agency and apdaptiveness
Instead of waiting for the market to outgrow its 'fibre problem', many community-based artists throughout remote Australia are creating an enormous diversity of basketry and fibre art. In the desert regions materials have been adapted, imported and incorporated, so that natural fibres such as minarri are being mixed with wool, raffia, feathers, plastic, string, cables and wire to create both new products and reinterpretations of old ones. Collaborations with non-Aboriginal fibre artists are common - whereas in painting it is almost unheard of - and result in creative boundaries pushed ever further. The Top End is similarly inventive, widely appropriating materials and art forms in a constant renewal and evolution of styles and techniques.
On the gender issue, historically women have been relatively disadvantaged because their material culture was 'craft' and men's was often art linked to the ceremonial. But this is changing as men give women rights in their ceremonial designs (women artists), or women adapt their ceremonial designs for the market or as women adapt their 'crafting' skills to produce art. For example, women from Arnhem Land now weave dogs and mermaids and elaborate mats that are hung on walls as art and huge fish traps that are displayed as art forms.
Supporting less popular art
A hard commercial line says what art is produced should be determined by the market. A softer cultural approach suggests that all art of merit should be supported. The community-based art centre model generally looks to combines the two, subsiding what is less popular but also allowing art market signals to reach producers. The challenge is to direct the subsidy in a way that does not unduly distort market signals and does not unduly tax the successful. Some art centres manage this challenge using cross-subsidisation via variable mark-up policies. This is a difficult process for smaller art centres to manage or one's whose range of art forms do not include a mix of the highly prized and the less popular.
Influencing the market
It is sometimes overlooked today that gaining market acceptance for Aboriginal art took decades of hard work. Robust art centres take the view that they can play such a public education role, in collaboration with commercial galleries and public art institutions. Educating the market about the cultural worth and integrity of all Aboriginal art forms ultimately raises demand for all forms of art. Such an approach, at a broad level, can work by linking sale of less popular art to a positive cultural experience or better understanding of Aboriginal world views. Part of this would include providing educative material on how long it takes to collect pandanus and to collect natural dyes and to cook the pandanus and to then weave it and to then transport it.
Displaying fibre as art
Some art centres link painting exhibitions with display of baskets produced by the same artist. Many art centres are getting a lot smarter about display and marketing displaying fibres like art. Display is important because crowded art display makes it look like an inferior good and it is hard for buyers to make informed aesthetic judgments. There is a need to make art of whatever form look relatively scarce so it is viewed as a 'luxury' good, as something unique which is what art is all about. Some of the more influential art centres actually have exhibitions of fibre as did Injalak Arts with the exhibition 'Twined Together' (Hamby 2005) at the Museum of Melbourne. Just as public art institutions assisted to shift the view of Aboriginal 'art' from being ethnographica, so the same can happen to 'craft': currently the National Gallery of Australia in 'Right Here, Right Now' is displaying conical fish traps as art; the Art Gallery of NSW did the same in its 'Crossing Country' exhibition in 2004 (Perkins 2004). In this way public preconceptions about what is art and craft can be challenged and possibly changed.

Public policy implications

Indigenous people in remote Australia are extremely economically disadvantaged for many reasons, but in part because their communities are located in regions distant from markets and economic opportunity. There is no doubt that in many situations inactivity is linked to social problems. Paradoxically, while politicians and policy makers lament the extent of Aboriginal disadvantage, opportunities to support industries where Indigenous people hold market advantage are rarely supported at appropriate levels. Clearly in our view there is a strong argument for supporting the arts in Aboriginal communities, most effectively via community-based art centres. Such argument can be linked to the direct offsets that might be generated if the arts provides opportunity for Aboriginal people to engage in more meaningful activity and earn income above welfare minimums. Similarly, there are wider economic and cultural spin-off benefits from arts support generated for the tourism sector, regions and Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses: such arguments are now well rehearsed.

We have suggested some strategies that might assist to address the marketing and market demand problems that we have termed the fibre problem. We accept the possibility that the prejudices of art consumers is fixed and too embedded to shift. There may never be a day when paintings and craft share the same stage. The combination of factors that drive market responses to fibre work and craft run a full range, from the economic and rational to the arty and irrational. These reasons, whether based on economic logic or intangible illogic, may be impossible to overcome. Accepting such a possibility though, without any policy response, is in our minds tantamount to accepting what Hirschman (1996) refers to as 'the futility thesis'.

In our view there is a central role for public patronage of art centres because they are the institutions ideally placed to undertake the strategies we have outlined. The state should support art centres, especially if successful, rather than perversely penalise the commercially successful as at present with reduced funding. Some of the functions that art centres must undertake are of a non-commercial nature and without public patronage artists whose work is currently unpopular will stop producing and art forms will disappear. Similarly, there is a need for arts policy to consider the need for better infrastructure at art centres. On one hand, policy makers are keen for art centres to grow so that more gainful activity and income can be generated. On the other hand, little thought is given to the capital needs and operational bottlenecks that these centres face if they do not have facilities to store, preserve and properly display art; or the capacity to use the internet for marketing and sales. At a time when policy makers are desperately seeking solutions to the apparently intractable economic problems of remote Aboriginal communities, growing the arts - expanding markets for the arts, and facilitating development work by art centres with capacity to broaden art form options - seems like an option worthy of serious consideration.

Conclusion: selling yarns, using yarns

Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to what we refer to as 'the fibre problem'. Art and craft is relatively undifferentiated in the contemporary Aboriginal world. And gender-based division of labour and specialities are breaking down through the agency of the artists operating within their own communities. Without doubt, the problem remains with the prejudices and the valuations of the western art market that dominates world trade in art. There are clearly limits to the degree that Aboriginal artists and their brokering organisations can challenge or alter these perceptions and associated valuations. There is certainly evidence from the past 30 years suggesting that just as the notion that art was ethnographica could be changed with much hard work, so the notion that 'fibre' is not art but craft can also be altered. This will require concerted effort to educate the market, 'using yarns' to market and sell yarns. Change could occur incrementally and will take time. Consequently public patronage will be needed to ensure that all currently unpopular art forms do not disappear. Realistically, some art forms may disappear or require adaptive management. Optimistically, market perceptions will alter and craft can successfully make the transformation from ethnographica to art, with associated benefits for both producers and the art world.

Tim Acker
Aboriginal Economic Development,
WA Dept of Industry and Resources, Perth

Jon Altman
Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research
The Australian National University, Canberra


Tim Acker is currently Senior Project Officer for Aboriginal Economic Development, within the Deptartment of Industry and Resources in Western Australia. He manages the arts program, working with communities and artists on creating sustainable arts enterprises in the Kimberley, East Pilbara and Ngaanyatjarra regions.

Jon Altman has a background in anthropology and economics and is the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. He has a long-standing interest in Indigenous art and in 1989 chaired the federal government review of the Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Industry that provided the blueprint for the current NACISS program.